Coping Through History:
Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, History, and Reconciliation

Long after the Civil War we are still fascinated by it. In some circles, the "War of Northern Agression" or the "Lost Cause" is thought of, discussed, brought to life daily. While every war has its fanbase, the Civil War has a special distinction for American. It was the war for the preservation of the Union in some classes, a violent and tyrranical putting-down of a justified rebellion in others. I have never been particularly interested in the war, or any war for that matter. I have also never been terribly entertained by professional sports or cowboy movies, either, so I blame my lack of enthusiasm for Civil War lore and history more on my general lack of manliness rather than any fault of the war’s. It was obviously a very moving conflict.

When I moved from Illinois to Arkansas and entered the eighth grade, I discovered my new school was approximately a year behind my old school in most subjects. I spent an additional nine months firming up my knowledge of "Earth Science," and relearning American History. For the most part, the entire academic year was simply a refresher – we even used some of the same textbooks I had used in the seventh gade. It was the same, that is, until we got to the Civil War. In Illinois the war was portrayed in fairly objective terms, something like this: "In the Civil War the North and South fought against each other. The South wanted to secede from the union, and the North wanted to keep the US together, oh and free the slaves. Illinois was part of the North." The instruction wasn’t necessarily complete or elevated, but I never felt like I was personally involved in the war. However, in Arkansas, in the South, I received an education much more like this: "During the Civil War, we fought against the North. They didn’t want to let us secede. We wanted to, and would have, but we lost. They freed the slaves."

Even at 13 I understood there was something very different about the way that people in the North and in the South view the war. Many writers, poets, and critics have pronounced that part of what makes the South so southern is the fact that it builds itself on its past. It cannot let go of the past. It cannot escape the past. While romantic, and somewhat sappy, I can believe that the South does have a very strange relationship with history.

It is this strange relationship that Tony Horwitz seeks to explain in Confederates in the Attic, and ethnographic study of Civil War enthusiasts in the South. Horwitz, a well-known foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and author of Baghdad Without a Map and One for the Road, journeys through the South, keeping in the chronological order of the war, talking to as many Civil War buffs, historians, and reenactors as he can meet. He stumbles across numerous odd little museums, filled with everything from Civil War era pharmaceuticals to the minie ball that supposedly transferred the semen of a rebel soldier into the womb of a southern belle. He encounters historians like Shelby Foote, who is well-known, to Mauriel Joslyn, who is not. He talks to reenactors at various anniversary celebrations, and befriends a group of "hardcore" reenactors who live and breathe the Civil War in every way possible. Horwitz finds entertainers who make their living from war nostalgia and tourists who seek out Civil War monuments, battlefields, and fireworks displays to complete their ultimate vacation. Horwitz finds humor and sadness, subtle historical rebellion and outright revisionism, and shakey views on race and rights. It is a huge sampling of data that Horwitz collects, and difficult to get a handle on.

Because Confederates is not a cut-and-dry report on how the South is dealing with the war in the late 1990s, it is open for interpretation. Overwhelmingly, readers and reviewers have responded to Horwitz’s blend of humor and sobriety. Indeed, it would be much more difficult to read such a book were it not for the sometimes outrageous interjections of truly hilarious quotes and events. And sometimes, the funny bits are only funny because they are so sad. Horwitz covers the case of Freddie Morrow, who is accused of shooting and killing a white boy, Michael Westermann. He gives a detailed description of the situation prior to the shooting, the circumstances leading up to the murder, and the aftermath in which Westermann was lauded as a Confederate hero and posthumously inducted into the Ku Klux Klan. The controversy around the crime concerns the rights of southerners to display the Confederate flag. Horwitz asks Morrow what the rebel flag means to him. The boy answers, "I thought it was just the Dukes of Hazzard sign" (116). The irony of reality is more powerful than the best contrived comedy.

Dealing with such controversial material as Civil War remembrance and racial tensions in the South, Horwitz was bound to stir up some mixed reviews. As I said before, most readers and reviewers have enjoyed the book. Some, as with the mainstream "highbrow" reviewers, have enjoyed it on a fairly superficial level. Amy Schwarz, writing for the Wilson Quarterly, writes that Confederates "faithfully reflect[s] the peculiarly American way of constructing a shared history" (109). For many reviewers and readers, Confederates will never be more than an interesting, amusing foray into the southern psyche. Other reviewers didn’t really read the book, and focus on small aspects of it, usually Horwitz’s experiences with reenactors. Still more reviewers come from the Civil War enthusiast angle, and at once laud and undermine Horwitz’s work. Joseph Sweet, writing for America’s Civil War, commends Horwitz for writing against the romanticization of the war and forcing enthusiasts to confront the sticky issues of glamorizing battle and a "culture that enslaved millions of African Americans" (63). Still, he writes about the chapter in which Freddie Morrow’s case is discussed, "They were like many Civil War soldiers of the previous century – young, aggressive and itching to make a mark in the world" (63). This line, along with several others in the review, sound a lot like romaticization of the war, and also sound a lot like some of the interviews Horwitz conducts. It seems an inescapable fate of Civil War buffs to repeatedly commit offenses they, themselves, identify and speak against.

When Confederates was added to the summer reading list for entering freshmen at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill this year, the Southern Legal Resource Center filed suit. The SLRC contends the chapter "The Only Living Confederate Widow" is defamatory because Horwitz claims William Jasper Martin, the widow’s veteran husband, was a deserter. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Mr. Horwitz stands by his account and says he is ‘weary of taking lessons in civility and fairness’ from a man who has defended white supremacists" (Read A8). The SLRC is counted as a neo-Confederate organization. Although the case has yet to be settled, the two sides were close to agreeing to a compromise: Confederates stays on the list, but will be accompanied by a statement about the contested content of the chapter in question. It seems bizarre to me that we have such controversies still – who is being hurt if William Jasper Martin is perceived as a deserter? And who benefits if he is not? Situations like this one, and questions like these are part of what compelled Horwitz to conduct his research for the book.

In more academic circles, too, Confederates has garnered both praise and criticism, usually at the same time. No one denies how entertaining the book is – it is a classic example of the "good read." Also, I’ve not found anyone who questions Horwitz’s methods. Being a seasoned and recognized journalist, Horwitz won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 1995, we can look at Horwitz’s book as a collection of data, being interepreted, of course, by Horwitz himself. The quality of Horwitz’s interpretation is often questioned, although it should be noted that it is generally agreed that Horwitz withholds judgement the majority of the time. What is interesting, in a literary sense, is when Horwitz at various times comments on what he sees.

Horwitz’s fascination does stems not from a sense of nostalgia, but an interest in the people who are nostalgic for the war. This has been the subject of more academic controversy since Confederates came out. Mark Malvasi, writing in the National Review claims that nostalgia should be defined according to the "Greek origins of the word [which] convey a distance in space rather than time" (61). In fact, according to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the Modified Latin Greek origins of "nostos" and "algos" would translate to "homesickness." The contemporary definition includes homesickness and, "a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition" (Merriam-Webster n. pag.). Of course, there is no reason to not call the kind of devotion Horwitz’s subjects show the war "nostalgia."

Readers only have to think of Robert Hodge tenderly showing Horwitz photos of himself "bloating" on the battlefield. Hodge is a hardcore reenactor renowned for his ability to imitate a dead, bloated Civil War corpse. Reenacting scenes is one thing – vicariously living out another person’s life for a moment. The hardcore reenactors take it further, working to stay in character longer. But the love Hodge shows for relics of himself, in character, make the obsession much more than method acting. Hodge is so "nostalgic" for the war that he wants pictures of himself as a casualty.

Photographs are a way to freeze time. One of the truths of photography is that the photograph is a subjective representation of a scene that does not necessarily accurately represent a real-world scene at all. There is always at least one person left out of a photo who is a major player in both the real-world event and our perception of that event through the photo – the photographer. Still, in our visual culture, photographs represent reality for the majority of viewers, just as various realistic novels represent reality for a majority of readers. Hodge’s photos represent an imagined reality, but have an increased power to cement that fantasy because of the popularity and nostalgia associated with Civil War photographs, tintypes, daguerrotypes, etc. They allow him to believe, in some way, that he was a part of the Civil War. And the fact that he is dead in the photo means he’ll always be a part of it. He can look at his photos and imagine he gave his life to the Cause, and in a strange way he did.

But nostalgia certainly doesn’t explain all of Horwitz’s encounters, and not even all of what any one of his interviewees says. It would be too easy if nostalgia were all that attracted millions of Americans to the Civil War. Horwitz could have figured that out without driving all over the South. No, the sense of nostalgia, which permeates most Civil War discussion, is coupled with a combination of pride, postmodernism, and good old southern orneriness.

In an interview with Southern Cultures, "The Black and the Gray," Horwitz discusses the stories of Black Confederate soldiers. During the interview he sums up the current thinking on the subject, which, at this point in time, is that maybe a dozen Blacks served in the Confederate Army as soldiers. There were plenty more Blacks in the army as servants of different types, but it is pretty well supported that they did not fight. Still, in many Southern Heritage and relatives of Confederate Veterans groups there is a popular rumor that some 30,000 Blacks fought for the South. The popular belief brings into focus the same tensions that much of Confederates does – issues of race, guilt, revisionism – but also a tension that is not so directly addressed in Confederates. People don’t trust the mainstream any more. We’ve known that for a long time. Horwitz calls it "a growing distrust of ‘objective’ truth and of those who peddle it" (16). He notes that many of the folks he talked with asked him how much bonus he would get for their story, or who he was "really working for" (16). Many of the resistence he encountered he perceived as defensiveness, and not entirely without justification. Southern whites have been stereotyped and denigrated in American culture. It is generally perceived as "OK" to pick on them in media and art.

Horwitz discusses the concept of a "useable past," which he calls a "voguish academic phrase," but which seems somewhat appropriate. As Horwitz describes it, people are "tailoring or cutomizing history to suit their own needs in the present, making use of what they can scoop up from the Internet and other sources outside the ‘mainstream,’ rather than what comes down on high from the priestly class of professionals" (15). Horwitz makes reference to this tendancy when he mentions people selling titles like "Facts the Historians Leave Out," which he explains is "a Confederate apologia from the 1920s" (118). By reconfiguring and romanticizing history, reenactors avoid the issue of slavery entirely, as if the Civil War can be separated from the issue of slavery. And the enthusiasts have ways of making slavery a non-issue for the war, as if that wasn’t a part of the problem. While I’ve always been taught in school that the issue of slavery was secondary to economic and political concerns, the Confederacy was a slaveholding state. Rather than confronting all of the war’s issues head-on, "history," in a bastardized, revised form, becomes the chief means to escape the past and ameliorate the present for most of Horwitz’s enthusiasts. And it is not as if many of the people he talks to aren’t racist. On the contrary, racism is rampant and guiding the actions of these people in many situations. They just happen to be situations not revolving around the Civil War.

The twisting of history doesn’t just end with the Civil War. As is evident in the "Wargasm" chapter of Confederates, the 1860s are inevitably compared to the 1960s by Civil War buffs. Hodge says as the two begin their jourey, "The Gasm’s a Bohemian thing, like a Ken Kesey bus tour, except we’re tripping on the 1860s instead of the 1960s" (212). That attitude manifests itself in a number of bizarre ways, usually having to do with racist neo-Confederate groups, who have begun quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to uphold their right to fly the Confederate flag and complain about civil rights violations. As Grace Hale points out in her article, "We’ve Got to Get Out of This Place," it is that reversal that shows the postmodern twist of our daily lives. Postmodern scholars have noted the importance of the "micronarrative" as Lyotard called it. Postmodernism tells us that each individual’s take on the story of the world is valid and carries weight. The people that Horwitz talks to have taken this notion to an extreme, in some cases completely involved in their construction of a fantasy Civil War world.

Hale also points out a double standard that Horwitz exhibits, which suggests that even with a concerted effort to remain fair to all parties involved in his ethnographic project, it is nearly impossible. While Horwitz can maintain his composure in the company of white bigots like the flag demonstrators or the numerous rednecks he met in bars, he fails to keep his cool when confronted with Rose Sanders and her class. When Horowitz visits Sanders’ history class he finds the students spouting a very different version of the war than he’d expected. The students call the war "his-story," meaning, the white man’s story. It had nothing to do with them. He writes, "In essence, the students wre saying that the Civil War had nothing to do with race or slavery – much the same argument made by neo-Confederates who saw the War through the prism of states’ rights" (368). Eventually, the exchange degrades into the same old racist patterns Horwitz has been chasing all over the South. Horwitz is extremely upset by this turn. It is obvious that he had thought he’d have more in common with Sanders’ ideology than the other Civil War enthusiasts’, and seems extra distressed when he discovers her views and those of her students.

Hale claims that this denigrates the southern whites, and pidgeonholes southern blacks. It would be wrong for Horwitz to expect any higher standard of behavior or ideological capability from Sanders than from the numerous racist reenactors and activists. Hale writes that Horwitz’s attitude toward Sanders forces her to become "the bad black betraying him" as in the neo-Confederates’ story of the races (60). It is also derogatory toward southern whites, because it upholds the notion that we cannot expect rational, intelligent behavior from them because they are too stupid.

But it’s not that simple. Horwitz seems as interested in issues of race as much as he is interested in the Civil War. Everywhere he goes, he makes note of things related to race, and he asks many of his interviewees about race. Over and over again he is confronted with claims that race does not enter into it. The Confederate flag is defended over and over again as not being a racist emblem. Shelby Foot notes that the Freedom Riders had "odd haircuts and strange baggy clothes" (154). What is that supposed to mean? It implies that Foote is getting mixed up between the Freedom Riders of the 1960s and the young black teens he sees walking around today, and he may hate both groups equally. After repeatedly being denied the opportunity to connect the Civil War to race, after encountering oddball after oddball hiding behind "Southern Heritage" to justify their vaguely racist decorations and traditions, Horwitz thought he had finally found somebody in Sanders who would connect his journey to the struggle for racial equality and harmony in the US. It isn’t there. After realizing Sanders’ point of view, Horwitz is left with nowhere to turn.
What do we do with this enthusiasm for a war that has been over for over 130 years but still haunts us? Undoubtedly the war was tied up with racial issues, and especially with the place of African Americans in America. But in the 1860s the issue was never dealt with head-on, and it doesn’t look likely that we’ll figure things out any better with modern technology. If anything society has become even more unwieldly, in part because of the retreat into the past that is so popular with a large segment of our population.

Forgetting is difficult because it is against our human nature as much as it is against the nature of the South. As much as scholars want to define the South as being hyper-concerned with their past, nearly to the point of being enslaved by history, it is not a truly identifying characteristic. One only has to look to Bosnia, Israel, Palestine, or Africa to see how hard it is for peoples all around the world to forget the wrongs they’ve suffered, even if these tribulations were justified. But mostly forgetting history poses a serious threat to the future. Sometimes we do need to know where we’ve been in order to know where we’re going.

However, remembering is also a sticky subject. Debates erupt about which history is correct, and which should be remembered. It’s also a matter of enthusiasm as much as anything else. Remembering the Civil War as many Northerners and Southerners remember the war, as a war that happened, had certain ramifications, and otherwise doesn’t affect contemporary life, is much easier to justify and deal with than a zealous attitude toward a "Lost Cause." It is just that great enthusiasm leads to reverence for ancestors that do not necessarily deserve it. Still, it is not as if any individual can decide for another which ancestors are worth revering.

Ultimately we end up back where we started: The American condition in the early 21st Century. Neither I, nor Horwitz, nor any of the critics and scholars in the world can give us a plan for harmonious, peaceful development of social attitudes. The Civil Rights movement didn’t end with the 1960s – it is alive and well today, and needed as much as ever. Ultimately, if we’re going to get along, it will be through a better understanding of each other, and that understanding will come from observation and communication. That’s where Tony Horwitz comes in. We need ethnographic work like his, not just of developing civilizations and indigent populations, but of wide swaths of American society. And we need the courage to confront our demons head-on, be they drunk rednecks in podunk bars or the spectres of a legacy of human rights abuses.


Works Cited


"The Black and the Gray: An Interview With Tony Horwitz." Southern Cultures vol. 4 (1998): 5-16.

Hale, Grace Elizabeth. "We’ve Got to Get Out of This Place." Southern Cultures vol. 5 (1999): 54.

Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1999.

Malvasi, Mark G. "History Repeats." Review of Confederates in the Attic. National Review 22 June 1998: 61-3.

"Nostalgia." Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Online. Accessed 19 Dec. 2000. <http://www.webster.com>.

Read, Brock. "The Confederacy Writhes Again." Chronicle of Higher Education vol. 46 issue 43: A8.

Schwartz, Amy E. "Contemporary Affairs." Review of Confederates in the Attic. Wilson Quarterly vol. 22 issue 2 (1998): 108-110.

Sweet, Joseph F. "Review of Confederates in the Attic." Review. America’s Civil War vol. 12 issue 1 (1999): 62-4.




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